Asphalt (specifically, asphalt concrete), sometimes called flexible pavement due to the nature in which it distributes loads, has been widely used since the 1920s. The viscous nature of the bitumen binder allows asphalt concrete to sustain significant plastic deformation, although fatigue from repeated loading over time is the most common failure mechanism. Most asphalt surfaces are laid on a gravel base, which is generally at least as thick as the asphalt layer, although some ‘full depth’ asphalt surfaces are laid directly on the native subgrade. In areas with very soft or expansive subgrades such as clay or peat, thick gravel bases or stabilization of the subgrade with Portland cement or lime may be required. Polypropylene and polyester geosynthetics have also been used for this purpose and in some northern countries, a layer of polystyrene boards have been used to delay and minimize frost penetration into the subgrade.
Depending on the temperature at which it is applied, asphalt is categorized as hot mix, warm mix, or cold mix. Hot mix asphalt is applied at temperatures over 300 °F (150 °C) with a free floating screed. Warm mix asphalt is applied at temperatures of 200–250 °F (95–120 °C), resulting in reduced energy usage and emissions of volatile organic compounds. Cold mix asphalt is often used on lower-volume rural roads, where hot mix asphalt would cool too much on the long trip from the asphalt plant to the construction site.
An asphalt concrete surface will generally be constructed for high-volume primary highways having an average annual daily traffic load greater than 1200 vehicles per day. Advantages of asphalt roadways include relatively low noise, relatively low cost compared with other paving methods, and perceived ease of repair. Disadvantages include less durability than other paving methods, less tensile strength than concrete, the tendency to become slick and soft in hot weather and a certain amount of hydrocarbon pollution to soil and groundwater or waterways.
In the mid-1960s, rubberized asphalt was used for the first time, mixing crumb rubber from used tires with asphalt. While a potential use for tires that would otherwise fill landfills and present a fire hazard, rubberized asphalt has shown greater incidence of wear in freeze-thaw cycles in temperate zones due to non-homogeneous expansion and contraction with non-rubber components. The application of rubberized asphalt is more temperature-sensitive, and in many locations can only be applied at certain times of the year.
Study results of the long-term acoustic benefits of rubberized asphalt are inconclusive. Initial application of rubberized asphalt may provide 3–5 decibels (dB) reduction in tire-pavement source noise emissions; however, this translates to only 1–3 decibels (dB) in total traffic noise level reduction (due to the other components of traffic noise). Compared to traditional passive attenuating measures (e.g., noise walls and earth berms), rubberized asphalt provides shorter-lasting and lesser acoustic benefits at typically much greater expense.
Concrete surfaces (specifically, Portland cement concrete) are created using a concrete mix of Portland cement, coarse aggregate, sand and water. In virtually all modern mixes there will also be various admixtures added to increase workability, reduce the required amount of water, mitigate harmful chemical reactions and for other beneficial purposes. In many cases there will also be Portland cement substitutes added, such as fly ash. This can reduce the cost of the concrete and improve its physical properties. The material is applied in a freshly mixed slurry, and worked mechanically to compact the interior and force some of the cement slurry to the surface to produce a smoother, denser surface free from honeycombing. The water allows the mix to combine molecularly in a chemical reaction called hydration.
Concrete surfaces have been refined into three common types: jointed plain (JPCP), jointed reinforced (JRCP) and continuously reinforced (CRCP). The one item that distinguishes each type is the jointing system used to control crack development.
One of the major advantages of concrete pavements is they are typically stronger and more durable than asphalt roadways. They also can be grooved to provide a durable skid-resistant surface. A notable disadvantage is that they typically can have a higher initial cost, and can be more time-consuming to construct. This cost can typically be offset through the long life cycle of the pavement. Concrete pavement can be maintained over time utilizing a series of methods known as concrete pavement restoration which include diamond grinding, dowel bar retrofits, joint and crack sealing, cross-stitching, etc. Diamond grinding is also useful in reducing noise and restoring skid resistance in older concrete pavement.
The first street in the United States to be paved with concrete was Court Avenue in Bellefontaine, Ohio in 1893. The first mile of concrete pavement in the United States was on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan in 1909. Following these pioneering uses, the Lincoln Highway Association, established in October 1913 to oversee the creation of one of the United States’ earliest east-west transcontinental highways for the then-new automobile, began to establish “seedling miles” of specifically concrete-paved roadbed in various places in the American Midwest, starting in 1914 west of Malta, Illinois, while using concrete with the specified concrete “ideal section” for the Lincoln Highway in Lake County, Indiana during 1922 and 1923.
Composite pavements combine a Portland cement concrete sublayer with an asphalt. They are usually used to rehabilitate existing roadways rather than in new construction.
Asphalt overlays are sometimes laid over distressed concrete to restore a smooth wearing surface. A disadvantage of this method is that movement in the joints between the underlying concrete slabs, whether from thermal expansion and contraction, or from deflection of the concrete slabs from truck axle loads, usually causes reflective cracks in the asphalt. To decrease reflective cracking, concrete pavement is broken apart through a break and seat, crack and seat, or rubblization process. Geosynthetics can be used for reflective crack control. With break and seat and crack and seat processes, a heavy weight is dropped on the concrete to induce cracking, then a heavy roller is used to seat the resultant pieces into the subbase. The main difference between the two processes is the equipment used to break the concrete pavement and the size of the resulting pieces. The theory is frequent small cracks will spread thermal stress over a wider area than infrequent large joints, reducing the stress on the overlying asphalt pavement. Rubblization is a more complete fracturing of the old, worn-out concrete, effectively converting the old pavement into an aggregate base for a new asphalt road.
Whitetopping uses Portland cement concrete to resurface a distressed asphalt road.
Gravel is known to have been used extensively in the construction of roads by soldiers of the Roman Empire but in 1998 a limestone-surfaced road, thought to date back to the Bronze Age, was found at Yarnton in Oxfordshire, Britain. Applying gravel, or “metalling,” has had two distinct usages in road surfacing. The term road metal refers to the broken stone or cinders used in the construction or repair of roads or railways, and is derived from the Latin metallum, which means both “mine” and “quarry”. The term originally referred to the process of creating a gravel roadway. The route of the roadway would first be dug down several feet and, depending on local conditions, French drains may or may not have been added. Next, large stones were placed and compacted, followed by successive layers of smaller stones, until the road surface was composed of small stones compacted into a hard, durable surface. “Road metal” later became the name of stone chippings mixed with tar to form the road surfacing material tarmac. A road of such material is called a “metalled road” in Britain, a “paved road” in Canada and the US, or a “sealed road” in parts of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
A granular surface can be used with a traffic volume where the annual average daily traffic is 1,200 vehicles per day or less. There is some structural strength if the road surface combines a sub base and base and is topped with a double graded seal aggregate with emulsion. Besides the 4,929 kilometres (3,063 mi) of granular pavements maintained in Saskatchewan, around 40% of New Zealand roads are unbound granular pavement structures.
The decision whether to pave a gravel road or not often hinges on traffic volume. It has been found that maintenance costs for gravel roads often exceed the maintenance costs for paved or surface-treated roads when traffic volumes exceed 200 vehicles per day.
Some communities are finding it makes sense to convert their low-volume paved roads to aggregate surfaces.